WALLA WALLA — Wa-Hi athletic director Don Wilkins has announced the hiring of Keith Gradwohl as the head baseball coach for the Blue Devils.
Gradwohl, 49, replaces Ryan Carter, who resigned this spring to accept the head baseball coaching position at Kamiakin.
"We think Keith will do a fantastic job," Wilkins said. "I’m excited to have him. I’ve never known anyone with more passion for the game of baseball. He truly loves the game. He respects the game, and he loves working with his players.
"He has an understanding of how the game should be played, and he teaches that to his players," Wilkins said.
Gradwohl headed-up the Wa-Hi baseball program in 1983-84 before stepping down.
Since then, he has coached baseball throughout the program in the Walla Walla School District.
"I’ve coached at several levels, including middle school, high school and in the summer baseball programs," Gradwohl said. "I feel that I can relate well to the players at all those levels."
Gradwohl spent the past 16 years as an assistant varsity coach at Wa-Hi. He worked with Blue Devil head coaches Scott Tibbling (who won the Class 4A state championship in 1988 when several players from Gradwhol’s ninth-grade team played on the varsity), Bill Plucker and Carter.
In recent years, Gradwohl has worked with Blue Devil pitchers, including Eric O’Flaherty, who is now in the Major Leagues with the Atlanta Braves in the National League.
Gradwohl plans to continue his work with Wa-Hi pitchers. He also plans to maintain the emphasis on improving hitting by the Blue Devils, which began under Carter.
"In the Big Nine, we face tough pitchers," Gradwohl said. "We want our kids to understand the situations, to recognize the types of pitches, to know their strengths and what they can hit, to know the count and what it means.
"And we must be able to execute the bunt and the steal, so that we can play small ball when we have to," he added.
"We have a few kids who can really scoot, so we won’t hesitate to play hit-and-run, too," he said.
"Last year, we didn’t return any pitchers with varsity innings behind them," Gradwohl. "That will be different this year. We will return our ace, Ryan James, along with good experience from Matt Watson and Drew Christina.
"And if it’s true that a key to baseball success is being strong up the middle, we’re in good shape," he said. "We have Justin Mathews, Kevin Toon in the middle infield, with Morgan Maddess in center field.
And we have Zach Meyer and Conner Holbrook behind the plate," he said. "We are strong up the middle."
Gradwohl spent the summer coaching the Walla Walla Bruins, which featured many of the Blue Devil varsity players.
"And we had three key varsity players (Mathews, Meyer and James), who were moved up to the Walla Walla Bears," Gradwohl said.
Gradwohl said working with the players at the various levels gives him an edge because he knows them, and they know him and what to expect.
The Blue Devil baseball turnout seldom qualifies as large, but Gradwohl likes to have from 15-18 players on the varsity.
Ideally the program, with freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams, consists of about 54 players total, he said.
"We had some varsity success last spring when we made the playoffs," Gradwohl said. "That’s our goal, not that winning is the only reason why we play the game. We enjoy the game.
"We don’t have to be the best at hitting, throwing or fielding, but we can always hustle," Gradwohl said. "We want that to be the Blue Devil trademark."
"We have good kids, and we enjoy playing the game the way it should be played," he said. "And that includes hustling on every play."